Lazier Sourdough

I’ve read that there’s two ways of approaching sourdough. One is to take a careful, professional, scientific approach – and the other is to trust to instinct and hope for the best! I’m very much in the latter category, and I’ve been baking sourdough bread for about half a year now, ever since I worked out how to keep a starter without it going hyper-acidic or mouldy (hint: don’t seal it when not refrigerated, and change the container regularly).  The culture (named Aethelbread – I was watching Last Kingdom at the time) is now properly mature and I’ve been getting some great loaves out of it.

However, if there’s one thing that always puts me off bread-baking, it’s the act of kneading it – especially when the dough is sticky. I don’t know if it’s because I tend to use a mix of wholemeal and white flour, or whether it’s just a lack of skill, but I’ve always found it difficult to get my bread doughs to the window-pane stage. However, scanning baking blogs for a new solution, I recently stumbled upon the autolyse technique. It’s deceptively simple – just add the flour and water together before baking, and leave them to stand for a few hours for mixing in the starter and other ingredients. The result is a dough that’s so much easier to knead – and it seems to improve the texture of the end product as well!

NB – if you’re wondering why it’s so round, it’s because I messed up the shaping slightly so had to cook it a casserole dish. Still tasty though!


A Stately Home, But Without a Roof

Late last month I got a chance to visit The Vyne, a National Trust property in rural Hampshire. Once a Tudor mansion, like many properties the house had been rebuilt and added too over the years, and I was looking forward to seeing the place. While I’d heard that there was some restoration work going on however, it soon became clear on arrival that I’d seriously under-estimated the scale of the operation!

Having been leaking for years and badly affected by storm damage, The Vyne was having its entire roof stripped off and rebuilt. The result was that practically the whole building was enclosed in scaffolding with a giant tent over the top! The main house was still open, but with all the windows boarded shut it felt eerily like a haunted house wandering through the Tudor stone chapel and eighteenth-century wood-panelled rooms. The collections were all out of place as well, but in a way that actually made the visitor experience more engaging – the quiet chaos of it all giving a better impression of the changes the place had seen over time than the traditional preserved rooms you usually find in NT properties.

Having explored the interior, the time came next to clamber up on to the roof! The NT had constructed a walkway all around the building site, allowing a birds-eye view of the works while explaining how the materials were being sourced. The photo above shows the new lead roof being constructed to allow for better drainage, a process which includes the construction team melting down some of the original leadwork so that it can be reused. The whole site is practically an archaeological dig as well as a building site. Amongst other things, the builders have discovered that medieval timbers were reused in the later extension and repair works, making parts of the building far ‘older’ than they’d previously realised!

Surrounded by gardens and woodland, the site is impressive enough as is and I look forward to going back again once all the work is completed. That said, I doubt I’ll get such a good view of the chimneys next time!

Rail & River Walking: Cholsey to Goring via Wallingford

The weekend after my last walk in South Oxfordshire I went up there again, this time jumping off the train at Cholsey. After a bit of confusion trying to locate the path out of the village (and avoiding getting in the way of the police officers dealing with a rather dramatic-looking car crash) I managed to locate the walk along the heritage line to Wallingford. The path ran across fields right alongside the railway, as the picture above shows! Despite being mostly farmland, it was also quite a beautiful walk in its own way – the hedgerows and margins of the fields were a blaze of colours, and with packs of red kites flying above there was plenty to look at on the walk.

Following the path as it veered away from the railway, I arrived into Wallingford and crossed the Thames (picture). It was a scorching hot afternoon by this point, and the river meadows were practically like resort beaches with the number of people crowded on them. I also discovered in passing that Wallingford apparently has an Agatha Christie connection – she had a home in Winterbrook, a village absorbed by the town, and died there in 1976.


There was no time to stop however if I was going to be able to make my train back from Goring, so I pressed on. Walking first along the meadows, the path then turned inland and led towards the village of Mongewell, where it joined on to the Ridgeway running south along the river. There was very little shelter from this point onwards, and with the sun proving so strong I had to slow down my pace. By the time I’d made it through North and South Stoke, I was convinced I was going to miss my train. Fortunately however, some welcome shade from the trees on the final stretch of the route allowed me to pick up pace again, and I managed to catch the train to Reading with just 4 minutes to spare. Like last time, the walk was ten miles in all – though it certainly felt longer in the summer sun!


Getting My ‘Bake Off’ On: Cherry Bundt Cake

Last Saturday was our annual street party, so I decided that for my contribution I should tackle a recipe I’d been meaning to try for ages – the cherry bundt cake technical challenge from series 5 of Bake Off! I’d bought a bundt tin ages ago, but given its size I’d never really had much occasion to bake with it, so I was glad to finally put that to some use as well.

Following the BBC’s recipe online, everything went smoothly up until the cake refused to come out of the tin. The shape of the bundt meant that trying to use a pallet knife would be a disaster, so after having tried and failed to get it to come out by gently tapping it, I ended up going for broke and giving it a massive thump – half expecting it to fall apart into a thousand pieces… Fortunately though it came out beautifully, looking for all the world like a giant doughnut!

Over-excited by this success, I did mess up slightly at the end by making the icing a little too thin. It tasted great though and none of the cherries sank, so I’m hoping this would score mid-table at least! 😀

Fields of Wheat: Walking west of Streatley

Having spent much of the election traipsing around rural Oxfordshire, I decided to spend the Sunday afterwards exploring the countryside for at a more pleasant pace! Wanting to make use of a new OS map I’d recently bought, I plotted out a circle route starting and ending in Streatley (although technically I suppose it ended in a pub in Goring!).

Starting at the bridge across the river, I followed the Thames Path north towards Moulsford. It was a quiet route and absolutely gorgeous in the June sunshine – although the presence of a black narrowboat decorated in the colours of Alestorm was somewhat disconcerting! At Moulsford itself I managed to get slightly lost amidst a few overgrown paths and some playing fields, but eventually I found myself on the westward path out towards Unhill.

I hadn’t actually decided on a firm route by the time I got to the junction of paths at Starveall Farm, but with an eye to time I opted to cut through the valley called Unhill Bottom. It was a lovely route – the valley was farmed with fields of still-green wheat, but the hills on either side were wooded, channelling the wind right along the valley floor and making the crops ripple like waves. It was so refreshing, and the perfect antidote to several weeks staring at constant breaking news.

Climbing the hills at the end of the valley, I caught a good view of Didcot with its famous power stations, before turning south and cutting through Unhill Wood. Finally, I reached the ancient Roman road of the Ridegway, and followed that back into Streatley. All in all I think it came to about ten miles in total – not bad for a short summer walk!


Getting the vote out (and getting trapped in a voter’s garden…)

So, election day last week and I was out knocking on doors for my chosen tribe, trying to coax our would-be voters down to the polls. With my own constituency a foregone conclusion (or so everybody thought – it unexpectedly flipped from Conservative to Labour on the night), I spent the day getting the vote out in the villages around Oxford.

The day was hard work but fun, although not without incident. While door-knocking on one street, I had to visit a house set back from the road with six-foot high fences all around. I let myself into the garden, stopped by the house (busy, but will vote later) and was heading back to the road and… the latch on the gate couldn’t be lifted from the inside. It’d been made very clear that the residents would not welcome another knock on the door, but there was also no way of getting out. Eventually, thank God, my friend was able to rescue me, but still not quite the election afternoon I’d had planned…

Simon starts another new blog

Hello, hello, and welcome to my latest attempt at blogging! Unlike with my past attempts, I’m not going to be setting in stone exactly what this blog will cover. Expect history items, political things (though not rants, I promise), stuff about my hobbies and probably a fair amount of nonsense too. We’ll see what happens!